Census 2000 Counters Are Barred From Access by Upper East Side Doormen

You think it’s tough being a U.S. Census worker in Brooklyn or Queens, where a fair number of residents either speak a language other than English or are immediately suspicious of anybody bearing government credentials? Try being a head counter on the Upper East Side.

The poor souls who’ve been recruited to survey elusive Manhattanites in the city’s swankier high-rises are running into an obstacle to government efficiency as fearsome as the proverbial Ozark grandma sitting on a porch with a shotgun: the doorman. They’re hired to keep outsiders out, and they are nothing if not energetic in fulfilling about their job requirements. Even the outsider flashes a copy of the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes his or her appearance every 10 years.

“You know those pesky doormen,” said U.S. Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, whose district includes the Upper East Side. “They don’t want to open the door for anyone. We’ve gone over their heads, to the building managers, sending letters to get the cooperation we need.”

If Ms. Maloney seems insistent, it is with good reason. There’s a lot at stake in the head count, including the future composition of Ms. Maloney’s district. New York State figures to lose at least two congressional seats when new districts are drawn based on the new census. One of those seats very likely will come from New York City, which already is suffering from a lack of clout in Washington. Ms. Maloney’s district already bears the scars of a previous redistricting: For years, the Upper East Side congressional district, the so-called Silk Stocking district, was a proud entity unto itself. After the 1990Census, however, the Upper East Side no longer had enough people to justify a single district. Now the Silk Stocking district stretches across the East River to Brooklyn and Queens.

Of course, government spending programs are based on neighborhood census counts, too, so an undercount could lead to a cut in funds for schools, social services and other government institutions.

Apparently, though, residents of the Upper East Side believe that census forms are for the little people–and besides, who among them sends their children to public school?

The doormen who look skeptically at census enumerators bearing ID cards, tote bags and a stack of books are, after all, doing what their employers–the building residents–wish and pay them to do.

“What we do is give [the census enumerators] the number of our office, of the people who take care of the building,” said one Upper East Side doorman who asked to remain anonymous. “They send a letter to every tenant; if they respond, they respond. If not, I can’t let anyone in. A lady [enumerator] came here once; I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t let you in. You’ve got to go through our manager, because I don’t want to get fired.’ If I let her in, then I get fired.”

But one census enumerator pointed out that she and her colleagues are not just people off the street looking to gain entrance into posh buildings. “We’re not selling anything,” said Margaret Chiffriller, a census crew leader for part of the Upper East Side. “It’s not a ‘no, thank you’ situation. We’re not selling Girl Scout cookies or newspapers.”

Nevertheless, building managers want nobody in the hallways, not even certified government head counters. “It’s very simply a matter of security,” said John Luciano, an Insignia Residential Group account executive for 301 East 78th Street. “All their careers these men have been told not to let people in. And there’s no reason to alter that.” While he said he understood that “sometimes you need to remind the people in these higher-end buildings that they need to be counted,” Mr. Luciano didn’t see the purpose of allowing the enumerators into the building. “All they need to do is bring the paperwork over to the superintendent. He’ll place it under the doors of the people the forms specify. And then they’ll get it back to the people at the census.”

Can’t Be Bothered

Or will they? Some civic-minded Upper East Siders wonder whether their neighbors are really interested in helping the government get an accurate head count. “I’ve met seemingly sophisticated New Yorkers who say that they can’t be bothered” with the census, said M. Barry Schneider, chairman of Community Board 8, which covers the Upper East Side. Unlike the black-helicopter crowd, which has expressed its antipathy toward this year’s census, the Upper East Side seems less motivated by paranoia than by a sense that it is entitled to pay no attention whatsoever to such a grubby activity.

It’s uncertain how many Upper East Side residents have failed to fill out their census forms–those numbers won’t be available until next year, when the process is complete. The counting process is expected to continue throughout the summer, at least.

Determined to maintain a nearly impenetrable atmosphere, co-op boards throughout the Upper East Side have given their doormen orders to turn away anyone who isn’t expected. “The problems come from co-op boards concerned about privacy,” said Julia Plokin, a local U.S. Census Bureau official. “They were afraid that enumerators would come in en masse, wandering through the halls. But we send only one or two people in.”

Gregg Carlovich, the resident manager of a co-op at 3 East 69th Street, asserted that there are “a lot of scam artists out there and the doormen are trained to spot and stop them. Some guys pretend to be Con Ed, others delivery people. So you have to be careful.” Mr. Carlovich prefers to receive the enumerators himself. “Only about 25 percent of my residents hadn’t filled out the form originally, and most of them use their places as pieds-à – terre. When the census people come I let them know that ‘this guy’s in Florida, this guy D.C.’”

The lack of cooperation from doormen and co-op boards hasn’t been entirely unexpected by the Census Bureau. “The denials have not been a surprise,” said Lester Farthing, the regional director for the New York office of the bureau. “The Upper East Side presents one of the toughest situations as far as reaching people. You have people making a good salary, a lot of them are gone traveling, some apartments are owned by corporations, many by foreigners who have no clue what is going on.”

To be sure, the process has startled some wealthy non-citizens on the Upper East Side. According to Ms. Plokin, the Census Bureau received numerous complaints about odd young people with pencils and pads from residents near the United Nations, where many consular officials and staff live. One diplomat insisted that she was being “stalked by a young man” who said he was from the Census Bureau.

But misunderstandings can’t always be blamed for a lack of cooperation with enumerators. While in some cases it is building policy that doormen refer census workers to management, as at 480 Park Avenue and 301 East 78th Street, there are less savory reasons for refusing entry. “Of course race is always a problem,” said Mr. Farthing, noting that many census enumerators are members of minority groups. The Census Bureau had tried to head off the problem by recruiting workers from within individual neighborhoods to survey those neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, however, Upper East Side residents weren’t interested in working for the U.S. Census. “The Upper East Side produced the lowest result of our recruiting,” Mr. Farthing said. “In most every other neighborhood we went eight times [over] our expected recruiting goal. In the Upper East Side we never hit it.”

As a result, the enumerators working the Upper East Side don’t look especially like most Upper East Side residents. In some cases, creative measures are being used to get into the building. “If an enumerator is denied access, for whatever reason, we try again,” Mr. Farthing said. “We can try … three times to get the right combination. We try to match our enumerators to residents by demographic. We look at all the factors.”

Even if the doorman can be hurdled, there is some mixing and matching within the building to entice residents to an interview. “If an old man has trouble getting an interview with an apartment we know contains two bachelors, we know to send a beautiful girl the next time,” Mr. Farthing said. “Then there’s no problem getting an interview. We have some beautiful people working here.”

A Fine Mess

By providing for the privacy of their building’s residents, doormen actually are breaking a federal law that forbids building employees from barring census workers, under threat of a $500 fine.

“There very well could be fines,” said the Census Bureau’s Ms. Plokin, “but frankly it’s gone unenforced. Our goal is not to make waves, it’s to count people. The fine gives us a realistic threat, though. If it were levied, I think people, no matter how well off, would care.”

The fact of the matter, however, is that fines have not been used to help open the doors for enumerators. Doormen are still suspicious of the surveyors, dressed in something other than the Upper East Side uniform of entitlement.

And, of course, that’s why they’re there. Ben Chevat, Ms. Maloney’s chief of staff, sympathized with the doormen’s plight. “It’s the doorman’s job to keep people out,” he said. “The census has had better luck in neighborhoods other than affluent neighborhoods. The doorman is just another challenge.

“America,” he noted, “is a complicated place.”